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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/2/09

The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy, by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres, et al

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This is an extraordinary book about race relations in America.  And by 'race relations" I mean blacks and whites, as Ralph Ellison would have meant those words sixty years ago.  But The Miner's Canary is about much more.  It's about all-minority-cultures and whites in America.  And in direct opposition to the color-blind solution the Supreme Court has decided the Constitution requires, the book's authors esteem and celebrate and find strength, including political strength, in our separate cultural identities -- including the (non-oppressive part of the) cultural identities of white Americans.


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When I put The Miner's Canary down, I wished I had read the Acknowledgments first, then the chapter "by" Torres. The book is a difficult read, and it has many authors.  It is in the best sense of the term a collaborative effort. 


The voice I identify as that of Lani Guinier* seems sometimes to address junior high school students and other times to address law professors. So the book has many levels of analysis, and it treats its central topic Â- "political race" -- from many angles. These are not shortcomings, but they add up to a very demanding book.



The book's real-life examples, however, are all wonderful and all one -- compelling and utterly elucidating. And the long illustration of how Greek democracy in action would look if it followed American districting and apportionment rules is simply surpassing wonderful.


Then there's the book's immediacy. Prominent economic historian Robert Fogel has emphasized the roles of technology and religious activism in America's movements for social justice, relegating progressivism to the status of an adjunct to the latter. The Miner's Canary, on the other hand, puts the struggle for social justice squarely within the politics of progressivism. This is not necessarily inconsistent with Fogel (whatever one thinks of the validity of his argument), assuming Fogel's subject is American political movements in the past before about 1980 when the Big Sleep set in -- which it is -- and assuming The Miner's Canary is describing developments since about 1980, which it is. The book certainly does not denigrate pre-1980 activism in America, but it says something new has been happening since them.  This new thing Guinier and Torres call "political race."


The ambition, originality and insights of this book far outweigh its difficulties due to multiple voices and an "un-ironed out" presentation. Read it and find out what "political race" is, or at least what it was five years ago.  You won't regret it.


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"How could I fail to speak with difficulty? I have new things to say." I graduated from Stanford Law School in 1966 but have never practiced. Instead, I dropped back five years and joined The Movement, but it wasn't until the 1970's that I (more...)
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